May 26, 2016
As most of my readers are aware, John Webster passed away yesterday. He was 60 years old. There are already some very fine pieces written in remembrance of this extraordinary theologian. Steve Holmes, Fred Sanders, Travis McMaken, Mark Thomson, and many others have offered their reflections, which also serve as nice little introductions to Webster’s theology.
Webster held the Chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen (pictured above) when I was there in the M.Th. program. For the past few years, he has been at St. Andrews. I do not have much to add to what has already been written, but I am fortunate to have sat under the teaching of Professor Webster. His course on “Principles of Systematic Theology” was inspiring and overwhelming, especially for someone still wet behind the ears in academic theology as I was. Webster was always incredibly kind and gracious. I wrote a paper for him on P. T. Forsyth, and he had some encouraging things to say.
Just as Barth did for his generation, Webster reminded us of theology’s peculiar joy and beauty. The expression that will be forever associated with Webster is “theological theology,” as Mark Thomson has written about in his remembrance. Theology as a rigorous discipline has an integrity of its own, so far as it is faithful to its object: God. As I have often recommended to others, there are two books from Webster which should be required reading for all students of theology: Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. The former is the single best introduction to Webster’s whole approach to theology, and the latter is probably his most influential book, at least among his many students.
Back in December of 2008, I wrote a post called, “The Ontology of Grace.” Therein, I offer some brief reflections in comparing Webster and Balthasar. It is remarkable how much my interests and questions have remained. I also recommend watching his 2009 Hayward Lectures, which are still available!
We can thank the Lord for giving the Church the gift of John Webster, a faithful servant in his kingdom. May God bless his soul.
May 28, 2015
Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.
Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”
Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.
Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.
On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.
Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.
An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”
Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.
The Christian Doctrine of God, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.
Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.
Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.
Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.
Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.
Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.
Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.
The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.
Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!
Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk
October 28, 2014
Now it is time for some theological heavy-lifting, sort of. Trust me, this is fun stuff!
The “incarnational analogy” for Scripture is when the incarnation of the Son, in the hypostatic union of true man and true God, is used as a model for understanding the ontology of Scripture. Basically it goes like this: the humanity of Jesus is capable of union with the divine Word, therefore the humanity of the biblical texts is capable of union with the divine Word, and in neither case is the humanity’s constitutional integrity compromised. If the biblical texts were to be understood as something other than fully human, then you could be accused of being a “monophysite” in regard to the what-ness of the Bible.
This analogy sounds good at first, but I have my doubts. It is interesting to observe the contrary ways in which this analogy can be put to use. For example, we can look at Al Mohler and Peter Enns. In his contribution to Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013), Al Mohler uses this model:
The incarnational model of Scripture is, of course, genuinely helpful; it rightly recognizes the Bible to be both divine and a human book. But the truth of this model does not lead to the conclusion that Enns would have us draw. The incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human, but his humanity was without sin. Just as theologians have for centuries argued over whether Jesus could not sin or merely did not sin, theologians may argue whether the Bible cannot err or merely does not err. But the end result is the same in any event — Jesus did not sin and the Bible is without error. [p. 126]
You see how that works? Mohler slipped from “sin” to “error” without signaling a shift. For this to work, Mohler would have to argue that the humanity of Christ was without error, not just without sin. This is a scholastic-style debate, whether Christ could err during his earthly sojourn. Could Jesus get a math problem wrong? Mohler would seemingly have to say no. Otherwise, the analogical use of Christ’s humanity would fail when applied to Scripture, for those like Mohler who want to uphold that all error is precluded by the text’s divine nature.
By contrast, Peter Enns believes that the humanity of Christ was capable of error, which includes a wide range of matters, such as cosmology and cultural traditions and presumably math problems. Thus, following the analogy, the humanity of Scripture is likewise capable of error. For Mohler, we must uphold an exhaustively inerrant humanity for Christ, so that the analogy can support an inerrant Scripture. He believes that the perfection of Christ’s humanity as sinless is a basis for arguing for the perfection of the Bible’s humanity as without error. But, once again, this only works if “Jesus did not sin” is the same as “Jesus did not err.” That has to be proven first, in order for Mohler’s use of the analogy to work. Likewise for Enns, “Jesus did not sin” but “Jesus did err” has to be demonstrated first, before turning to its analogical use for Scripture.
In other words, the analogical use of the Incarnation for the nature(s) of Scripture is dependent upon and determined by one’s prior christology, as we would expect. For Mohler, a sinless Jesus needs to be an errorless Jesus in all respects, given Mohler’s commitment to an inerrancy that makes no allowances for “accidental” (non-essential) errors. For Enns, a sinless Jesus does not need to be an errorless Jesus in all respects.
As I see it, to err is not necessarily to sin. All sin is error, but not all error is sin. There may be another basis upon which we must claim that Jesus was errorless in all respects, so I will recuse myself from answering this question for now. But, prima facie, it should be evident that the incarnational analogy is not as helpful as may first appear, especially when figures as diverse as Mohler and Enns can use it for their purposes. But we should question fundamentally the legitimacy itself of using this analogy in respect to the Incarnation of the Son. Michael Bird, following John Webster, says it well:
…I categorically reject Enns’ proposal of an “incarnational model” for explaining Scripture as a divine-human book. I am aware that such a model is merely a starting point for explaining how the Bible is both a divine and human work. However, this incarnational model is, as John Webster calls it, “Christologically disastrous.” It’s disastrous because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event, since it assumes that hypostatic union is a general characteristic of divine self-disclosure in, through, or by a creaturely agent. Furthermore, it results in a divinizing of the Bible by claiming that divine ontological equality exists between God’s being and his communicative action. [Ibid., 131-132, quoting Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 22]
Thus, the doctrinal implications of the analogy are suspect, if you accept Webster’s argument. It is worth pondering.
Image: “Adoration of the Child,” by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst (1590-1656)
September 18, 2014
A final note: Is it really Schleiermacher who is Hauerwas’s progenitor? Might not a better candidate be the great, and neglected, Albrecht Ritschl, surely the theologian of liberal Protestant Christian moral culture? Ritschl was, to be sure, no sectarian. But his repudiation of metaphysics, his fear that preoccupation with fides quae is a speculative distraction from viewing the world in terms of moral value, and his conviction that Christian faith is principally a mode of active moral community are not far from much that may be found in Hauerwas’s corpus. Perhaps one of the services of this fine book may be to cause its readers to ponder the irony that a body of writing that sets its face resolutely against the liberal tradition of modern moral theology may in important respects be that tradition’s heir.
“Ecclesiocentrism,” First Things, October 2014
If you’re familiar with Webster’s works, as you should be, then you will have a good grasp of why Webster appreciates the book so much.
March 8, 2014
John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.
Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:
It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).
The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.
The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).
I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.
“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …
Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.
You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.
November 6, 2013
R. Michael Allen (Knox Theological Seminar) is known to some readers of this blog for his publication last year, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (T&T Clark), an excellent tool for classroom use. Prior to that, he published Reformed Theology in the T&T Clark series, “Doing Theology.”
His most recent monograph is a study of the doctrine of justification: Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies (Baker Academic). He recounts his journey at the publisher’s website, as a once enthusiastic critic of the Protestant doctrine under the sway of the New Perspective. Things changed as he studied history and dogmatics:
But now I have written Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, arguing that the Protestant doctrine of justification is exegetically defensible and theologically essential to filling out catholic teaching on God’s relations to creatures in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This book manifests something of the journey I’ve been on now for a decade. I found that rising familiarity with the exegetical riches of the great teachers of the church (from Irenaeus and Gregory to Thomas and Bonaventure to Luther and Calvin) shows their brilliance as aids and our own limits as modern researchers. I’ve also seen that too often protests regarding the Reformation stem from really bad understandings of what it actually involved, too frequently based in reading of poor secondary sources rather than in careful study of primary texts. I hope this book serves as a useful prompt to further reflection in these two conversations: how do we think well of justification in light of the wider gospel of Jesus? And how do we go about the task of Christian theology and of a faithful Christian reading of the Holy Scriptures today?
Also, the publisher has an excerpt on Barth’s “sense of proportion and order”: Barth, Justification, and the Gospel.
I do find it fascinating and encouraging that Allen teaches at a seminary (Knox) that is owned and operated by a PCA congregation, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, now pastored by Tullian Tchividjian. Needless to say, a friendliness toward Barth is not exactly commonplace in the PCA orbit.
August 4, 2013
The lecture title is “God as Creator.” This is a run-through of Webster’s trinitarian theology, focusing on the relation of God’s aseity to his work of creation (his work ad extra). For those unfamiliar with current debates on the Trinity, this would be a good place to witness trinitarian theology in action, from one of our most adept practitioners. However, it may be a bit rough-going for those not acquainted with the terminology or with this sort of sustained categorical analysis.
You can always expect with Webster great spiritual insight, such as when he discusses the “distinct appropriation” of the Holy Spirit:
The Spirit so moves creatures that we come to be animated, to be alive. The life of creatures is the gift of the Spirit. That’s a point of great spiritual loveliness, and yet one which is very hard for us to perceive unless we abandon an intuitive sense that only we ourselves can give life to ourselves. That’s a deeply flawed but deeply ingrained intuition that we have. We imagine that our integrity can only be secure if we place ourselves beyond the reach of divine love. But divine love does the opposite: it frees us from self-responsibility. “God the Father wrought the creature through his Love, the Holy Spirit,” says Aquinas.
The lecture series is entitled, “Creator, Creation, and Creature: God and His World.” Here are the other two lectures:
Lecture Two (“God and Creation”)
Lecture Three (“God and His Creatures”)
For those who are familiar with current debates on the Trinity, you can expect to be stimulated by Webster’s articulation of God’s sufficiency and fullness apart from his creation — as the ontological ground from which grace derives.
September 30, 2009
I just finished reading John Webster’s essay, “Rector et iudex super omnia genera doctrinarum?: The Place of the Doctrine of Justification,” in the recently published volume, What Is Justification About?: Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme (Eerdmans, 2009). You can read the essay for free by clicking here. It was an exciting read…well, if you’re a theology nerd.
For those who have read Holiness or listened to his Kantzer Lectures at TEDS, a lot of the material will be familiar territory but still well worth reading for another fine-tuning of how the being and works of God are necessarily related. Of particular interest, Webster sketches how a doctrine of justification will look if presented in a movement from God’s inner “fullness of life” to his salvation of sinners by “interposing” himself between the creature and his falleness, restoring the “righteous fellowship” for which God created man. The final pages of the essay — a six step outline of this movement — has much fruit for thought (p. 50 ff).
December 16, 2008
Many theologians are inclined to view the primary function of grace as one of contradiction or disruption of present creaturely existence. The “new creation” (Paul) is an eschatological reality. It does have current manifestations but mainly by way of revealing (a noetic category) our present abidance in sin, little by way of transforming (an ontic category) our lives into a genuine holiness. John Webster is hard to pin down on this issue, but in the following passage he expresses this (typically Protestant) view:
…the Church’s holiness is visible as it confesses its sin in penitence and faith. The Church is consecrated by the Father’s resolve, holy in Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Such holiness is not achieved perfection, but an alien holiness which is the contradiction of its very real sinfulness. The Church is holy, not because it has already attained the eschatological state of being ‘without spot or wrinkle’, but because the promise and command of the gospel have already broken into its life and disturbed it, shaking it to the core. The Church is holy only as it is exposed to judgment.
This means that, far from being a matter of confident purity, holiness is visible as humble acknowledgment of sin and as prayer for forgiveness. ‘There is no greater sinner than the Christian Church,” said Luther in his Easter Day sermon in 1531. It is in repentance, rather than in the assumption of moral pre-eminence, that holiness is visible. …Realized moral excellence does not necessarily constitute holiness and may contradict it.
Holiness, pp. 73-74
Penitence is, thus, the primary function of grace, and as a penitent people, the Church witnesses to the one alone who is holy, Jesus Christ. Not I, but Christ. “Witness,” like “reveal,” is a noetic category, at least insofar as it is signifying not one’s own reality, but another reality. Other theologians, however, are more inclined to view the primary function of grace as both condemnation and constitution. Holiness can really be predicated of the Church. Of course, the Protestant fear of this typically Catholic approach is that the Church, the objects of grace, become the focus (“look how holy we are!”, “we are justified in our acts!”), instead of the giver of grace, God, from whom all holiness exists. Hans Urs von Balthasar understands the issue well (far better than I do!), as seen in such careful distinctions as “grace is a de facto property of nature, not a de jure property.” We do not merit the grace given, much less are we entitled to it, but in the grace given we in fact do partake in the life of God — His existence as love. Here is a passage where von Balthasar expresses this understanding, against the Protestant eschatologists:
According to Catholic doctrine, grace is that self-disclosure and self-communication of God in which God no longer possesses his own divine inner life for himself but now bestows it upon the world and thereby gives the creature a share in it. Now because God is both absolute spirit and absolute Being, this sharing in God’s life must also be both something conscious and ontically real: or what amounts to the same thing, it can only be understood as simultaneously involving both an event aspect as well as an ontological aspect.
If it were merely something conscious and cognitive — that is, if God were known in his self-revelation only as a truth about himself that the creature would have to accept and to believe — then even though we might think we had been enriched by this knowledge, the gain would prove to be entirely illusory. For really all we would have gained is a view of a world to which we were otherwise forbidden entry. But this kind of merely cognitive revelation of a divine world is inherently contradictory and impossible, because God’s truth is one with his Being (this is expressed in the statement that God is love). In other words, God cannot communicate his truth without at the same time giving us access to his Being.
…God’s revelation can only be an event if something actually takes place. …In fact, if nothing actual occurs between God and man that can be expressed ontologically, then in fact what happens is…nothing at all.
The Theology of Karl Barth, pp. 364-5
Of course, the problem remains, as von B notes elsewhere, that the Christian is indeed, in some sense, both sinner and saint. In our pre-resurrection existence, sin is real — but holiness is also real. Both penitence and charity can and do constitute the visible holiness of the Church, as indeed even John Webster notes the Church’s “constitutive character of its holiness” (p. 76) in its prayer for God’s enactment of his holiness in the Church.